Never a Sure Bet

A family passes mah-jongg—and a taste for gambling—down through generations

My father’s mother, Ma-Ma, taught me to play mah-jongg at the lucky age of nine.

At first, she had refused. Her lips were so taut, her tiny mouth disappeared. “It’s a gambling game,” she spat, as if that should immediately disqualify it. “Why do you want to know?” I shrank back. Why was she acting as if I’d asked a personal question, prying into her past? I knew better. Besides, she’d already taught me casino, blackjack, five- and seven-card stud, and gin rummy. Wasn’t mah-jongg just another game? Little did I know of the custom, the flow, the excruciating etiquette. Maybe Ma-Ma was thinking, She’s too young to learn all those rules. She’ll just be an annoyance.Or perhaps she was hinting at something more insidious—that I might have inherited our family’s addiction to gambling? Back then, I knew nothing of disownment. I could not have known that the divide between benign pastime and naked obsession was a chasm that had already swallowed one of our own.

I pinched my lips tight, like her. I would not let disappointment flow out. A hallmark of being Chinese: never whine. I looked down at her hands. She was visiting us for a month. I could wait.

My stoic face and submissive gesture were well received. Pushing her two-hundred-pound bulk up from the table, she sighed as she shuffled to the kitchen. “We need a tablecloth. I’ll make tea.” With a brusque wave of her hand, she sent me off to fetch a vinyl tablecloth, along with the battered leather case I’d recently found in the hall closet. Teapot in hand, Ma-Ma grunted as she sat back down, instructing me to flip the tablecloth over and spread it out fuzzy side up. As I emptied out the trays of ivory tiles, she wagged her finger and said, “This isn’t a real game. For a real game, you need to bet money.”  

It now seems fitting that Ma-Ma, the widow of one of Chinatown’s biggest lottery kings, would instill in me our family’s gaming heritage. Born and raised in San Francisco, Ma-Ma grew up poor among gamblers who won and lost fortunes, one day to the next. She hid her past like a secret shame, telling me only that she had to quit school after fifth grade. Rumor was that her family was so poor that her parents gave her away to a white family to be their maid. My cousin heard a more uplifting version: after fifth grade, Ma-Ma was apprenticed to a seamstress. Regardless, she learned to appreciate fine things—cashmere over wool, bone china over earthenware, sterling silver over silver plate. Somehow, she caught a lucky break and married well. Our family denies it, but throughout the 1940s, her husband—my grandfather Yeh-Yeh—ran a secret gambling club, complete with classy entertainment and opera singers, out of a nondescript concrete building he owned in Oakland Chinatown. Pai gow. Mah-jongg. And biggest of all: the lottery. In its heyday, the six-county lottery had a take of $250,000 a month.

Things screeched to a halt in 1951. Congress, in an attempt to quash organized crime, passed strict restrictions on lotteries and some other forms of gaming. It was no secret that crime syndicates used gambling and bootlegging to fund their empires. Chinatown joints became collateral damage. When one of his cronies was caught, convicted, and sentenced to ten years in prison for tax evasion, Yeh-Yeh wisely decided not to double down on his luck. He folded while he was well ahead. He died a few years later.

“Look at these tiles. These are the winds.” Ma-Ma began, patiently pulling out an example of each one. “Doong, naam, sai, bak.” I leaned over the table and matched her intonation, pushing each tile aside as I finished. Never had I been more eager to learn Chinese. I already knew the Chinese characters for numbers 1 to 10, a vestige of my miserable Saturday mornings at Mandarin Chinese School when I was six, so I only needed to memorize four winds and three dragons, and the tiles became a simple deck of cards.

Every time I’d bring out the worn leather case with the yellowed ivory tiles, Ma-Ma would protest, “So ugly!” when we sat down to play. At the time, I didn’t know that the tiles were heavy with meaning, tangible markers of an opulent past life that vanished the moment her sociable husband died. To me, they were beautiful. The warm clicks of ivory on ivory were a musical cascade, surging louder as we swept them around the table in egg-beater whorls, and suddenly silent when we stopped. To set up the game, with practiced fingers we’d line up six tiles—three in each hand, face down—and repeat the motion, placing the next six atop the first. We’d build our walls like fortresses until, at eighteen tiles long and two tiles high, they stood complete.

Ma-Ma was always the first dealer. Resting her heavy arms on the table’s edge, she’d roll the dice and scoop them aside, her tiny hands surprisingly lithe and graceful, her diamond encrusted ring—the one I now refer to as my “Wall of Bling”—glinting with each move. In one flowing gesture, she’d point an elegant fingernail to where I should break the wall while reaching for her first four tiles. If my hands weren’t quick enough to present her the open wall and move out of her way, she’d cluck with impatience. She insisted on proper mah-jongg etiquette. At the start of the game, she’d remind me, “Push tiles into the middle so everyone can reach!” During the game, “Play faster! So impolite to keep people waiting. No one wants to play with you!” I didn’t dare test her patience. I tossed out many a good tile just to keep the game moving. Over time, I learned to play by instinct, not fretting over the best possible option. I learned to stay alert, know my hand, anticipate, and, above all, to keep the tiles clicking.

Ma-Ma taught me to discard a tile with a satisfying flick, a technique that allowed each player equal time to see and react to the play. But you had to pay attention. Missing a three-of-a-kind pung was easy if you weren’t fast enough. She taught me to keep my eyes moving across the field of play, taking in opponents’ exposed tiles and the discards in the middle to determine my chances of drawing winning tiles. As we sipped hot tea from gold-rimmed bone china teacups, she taught me to sit still and not give away my hand. 

We had to keep score. With a gambler’s logic, she said, “Otherwise why play?” I protested at first—I’d lost too many times at poker, and, besides, weren’t we just having fun? Years later, I realized that scoring was the basis for developing a winning mah-jongg strategy; without scoring, mah-jongg made no sense. Initially, neither did Ma-Ma’s explanation. “A pak, or pung, is worth two—unless it’s a one or a nine, and then it’s worth four. Three of a wind or dragon is worth four—unless it’s your wind, and then you get a double.” I’d stumble through my counting until Ma-Ma would finally step in to correct me. If I’d miscalculated the base score, the doubling would amplify that mistake. And those points, to Ma-Ma’s thinking, meant cold hard cash.

Cash, for me, was never the prime motivator. Although I had inherited Ma-Ma’s tastes for fine things, I hadn’t inherited the gambling gene after all and had the will to save for what I desired. Still, I felt a secret surge of satisfaction, a guilty undeniable pleasure, when my counting bowl was brimming with blue and red chips, tangible yet ephemeral markers of my worth. In those heady moments when luck was on my side, the whole idea of gambling felt shady, illicit, and I wanted more.

After hours of evening play, Ma-Ma would push back from the table. “That’s enough, dear,” she’d say gently, a break in character that felt surprisingly warm and grateful. She’d heave herself up and slowly make her way to the guest room. As she closed the door, I knew I’d done well. She was, by her standards, content.

• • •

Although Ma-Ma lived in San Francisco Chinatown, I was an alien there. My cousins and I, fourth-generation Americans with little, if any, grasp of the Chinese language, uncomfortably straddled two cultures, both of which viewed us as foreign. We achieved a kind of peace in the suburbs, fitting in as we were allowed, but Chinatown Chinese viewed us with clear hostility. We were “other” on their turf, fancy birds with fluttering plumage, hip hairstyles and clothes, pockets full of confidence, loud in our command of the English language. We took up too much room.

To me, Chinatown mostly meant eating well. A few times each year, notably for Chinese New Year and Ma-Ma’s birthday, our families hosted lavish Chinese banquets for Ma-Ma and her two hundred guests. Perhaps the celebrations grew with her husband’s notoriety, but they continued after his untimely death. “Vegetables, too cheap!” Ma-Ma would say, so her ten-course menu was packed with nothing but expensive food. Twenty tables of ten would dine on shark fin soup, Peking duck, black-bean clams, and other protein-heavy dishes.

We cousins sat together at a table, glad for our English oasis, delighted with our duck and abalone and Belfast Sparkling Cider. Who were all those people speaking Cantonese around us? We paid no attention. After eating more than our fill, we packed up the Chinese take-out boxes and begged our parents for time to browse the lop sop shops that lined Grant Avenue. While our parents finished chatting and paid the bill, we rushed downstairs and had thirty minutes to pick up kitschy “Made in Hong Kong” tourist junk like Chinese finger traps, paper parasols, and wood puzzle boxes.

But in 1972, there was a distinct chill. That year, after the birthday banquet, our parents called us together and said we couldn’t go out by ourselves. Instead, we all escorted Ma-Ma to her regular mah-jongg game. I was confused and disappointed—we kids had been browsing the shops for years and, now in our teens and twenties, felt safe. But I knew not to argue. I fell into step beside one of my cousins as we herded ourselves down Grant Avenue.

Ma-Ma walked slightly ahead of us, her arm linked with one of my aunt’s, her long black coat swaying as she rocked side to side. After passing brightly lit storefronts with juicy roast duck and crispy-skin pork slabs hanging in the windows, we rounded a corner and started down a darkened alley that smelled of cigarette smoke and rotting vegetables. Suddenly aware of quick footsteps to my left, I spun around. To my relief, it was just Dad. As he approached, he furtively looked up and down the alley. All I saw were empty produce boxes spilling from dumpsters. Was that fear in his eyes? When he spoke, he talked out of the corner of his mouth so only we could hear.

“Are you going inside? You don’t need to do that.”

Any suggestion from Dad was akin to a command, but I’d already made up my mind. I didn’t want anyone—even Dad—to talk me out of my chance to see real Chinese people playing real mah-jongg. Wasn’t gambling still illegal? “Sure, I’m going inside,” I said confidently, landing on the perfect white lie. “I want to make sure Ma-Ma is settled in with her friends.”

Dad pursed his lips and shook his head, clearly unhappy, but to my surprise, he didn’t try to stop me. In the same low voice, he sternly muttered, “When you get to the door, step back. Don’t say anything. Someone else will talk.”

I glanced at my cousin, raised my brows slightly. She did the same. We both knew better than to ask why. In our Chinese family, we usually did as we were told. Elders never needed to justify anything to us.

“And when you get in—” Dad paused to look behind us again, his terse voice clear and sharp, “—keep your hands down by your sides, not in your pockets. This is important! Keep your hands down. Don’t look around. Don’t talk. Don’t look anyone in the eye.” I felt his breath in my ear when he leaned in and hissed, “And especially, don’t look at their money.” I swallowed hard. My lightheartedness vanished as he slowed and fell back in line with the five other parents behind us.

We came to an alley stairwell that led down to a basement door. “Here, dear, here,” Ma-Ma said to her walking companion. One of my uncles stepped forward and led five or six of us down the narrow steps while the others waited outside. When he knocked, a little slatted window, like in a speakeasy, slid open. After a short exchange in Cantonese, the basement door opened.

A man escorted us down a narrow, brightly lit hallway to another closed door. Another knock, a few hushed words. I heard the bolt slide back. Another man eyed us through the narrow opening. I kept my face frozen and my mouth shut. When he saw my grandmother, he threw the door open and, head bobbing deferentially, greeted her in rapid Cantonese.

We were in a narrow, windowless basement room. Card tables, some already occupied, were set up along the walls, a TV tray next to each seat. As we walked Ma-Ma to her table, people glanced up and nodded in acknowledgment, their TV trays spread with piles of gambling chips and heaps of green cash. Tiles clicked in sharp staccatos, punctuated by jabs of Cantonese dialect. Players barely looked at their tiles as they drew and flicked out discards. It was hard not to gape, to take it all in, but when my cousin muttered, “They don’t know us,” my dad’s warnings rang in my ears. I leaned in closer to Ma-Ma, careful to avoid eye contact with the other gamblers. After settling her into her chair, I kissed Ma-Ma and wished her a happy birthday. I was careful not to bump the trays of cash on my way out.

Years later, I would understand Dad’s strange paranoia: 1972 was a bad year in San Francisco Chinatown. Gang wars were heating up. Victims found in the bay—their bodies beaten, strangled, and hogtied—bore the signature marks of gang warfare. And tensions continued to worsen. Over the next five bloody years, fifty gang members would be assaulted or killed.

San Francisco reached its breaking point in 1977 after the infamous Golden Dragon massacre. Semiautomatic gun spray at the Golden Dragon Restaurant—one gang targeting its rival—killed five and wounded eleven, all innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire. Alarmed Chinatown residents stepped forward. Could the police keep their neighborhood safe? City Hall was apoplectic. Would tourists avoid Chinatown, one of San Francisco’s biggest attractions? After public outcry, the San Francisco Police Department finally took action, establishing a special Gang Task Force to quell the violence.

The Golden Dragon Restaurant, located on Washington Street, sat only a block away from Nam Yuen, the restaurant where, just four months prior, we had gathered to celebrate Ma-Ma’s birthday.

• • •

For years, I rarely thought about that illegal gambling den in San Francisco. I graduated from college, got a job, and moved up to Seattle, where the Japantown, Chinatown, and Little Saigon neighborhoods are broadly referred to as the “International District.” I still call it Chinatown. It’s not as big as San Francisco’s, but it has the same dark alleys, the same slim men smoking cigarettes, the same rancid grease-and-ginger smell.

On February 19, 1983, I was waiting for a ferry from Victoria to Vancouver, British Columbia, when the TV monitor flashed the news of the worst mass murder in Seattle history, a sad record it maintains to this day. I dashed over to hear the report. The camera feed zoomed in on Maynard Alley South, right next to the big red-and-white sign for Wa Sang grocery, the place I always shopped for Chinese ingredients because the friendly proprietor spoke English. Yellow crime scene tape was everywhere. The familiar sign for Liem’s Pet Store glowed in the background, but as the camera panned down the Chinatown alley, I realized I’d never noticed the unmarked door right next to Liem’s storefront.

As I learned on the news, that door led to a private gambling club: the Wah Mee club. Fourteen people had been robbed of cash and jewelry, hogtied, and shot at close range. Only one person survived the shooting. Shot in the jaw and throat, he somehow loosened his bindings and stumbled out the front door of the club into Maynard Alley. The newsman said the Wah Mee massacre had to be an inside job because it was a private club with tight security, with a series of locked doors to prevent break-ins, common in Chinese gambling clubs. My throat clenched when I remembered Ma-Ma’s mah-jongg club in San Francisco. The newsman was soon proven right. The lone survivor identified the assailants, setting off an international manhunt.

I imagined the victims sitting at card tables moments before the shooting. Middle-aged Chinese women and men—someone’s Ma-Ma, someone’s Yeh-Yeh—out for a routine evening of mah-jongg. Chips piled high on TV trays, green cash on the tables. The clicking of tiles. The cry of Chow-chow! (“I eat!”) as a lucky someone won a hand. A knock on the door. The sound of a bolt sliding open.

• • •

“It’s just like rummy,” I call from the kitchen as I start the tea brewing. My thirty-year-old son, Alex, and his girlfriend, and my brother and his twelve-year-old daughter—all mah-jongg neophytes—arrange chairs around the kitchen oak table as I pour hot water into Ma-Ma’s antique chrome pitcher. Its fragile glass lining will keep the water hot all day, and a pinch of high quality Po Nee will produce light aromatic tea for at least three full refills. When I was young, I’d bring my face close to the pitcher and laugh as the curves of its shiny surface distorted my visage into that of a Chinese Jiminy Cricket.

It’s my sixty-second birthday, and my family’s indulging me in whatever I wish. I have a simple agenda: play mah-jongg and eat a sumptuous banquet dinner worthy of the name. Lucky for me, both wishes will be granted. My eager players await instruction while a Peking duck—an increasingly rare delicacy that takes forty-eight hours to prepare—undergoes finishing touches at our favorite local Chinese restaurant. The duck’s not on the menu, but my spouse wheedled the owner into making it special for me, along with my family’s traditional birthday “long life” noodles and what Mom always insisted was “good luck” chicken. We’ll eat well tonight.

Like so many pastimes, my love of mah-jongg remained dormant for many years. Then, around ten years ago, my cousins and I met up in Oahu for a family reunion. A chance discussion led to the you’ve got to be kidding discovery that one had brought her mah-jongg set. “Ma-Ma taught you?” she exclaimed in wonder as she dumped out the tiles. “I only learned to play a few years ago!” As we sipped tea and flicked out tiles, calling out pung and chee with flowing ease, we laughed and reminisced about Ma-Ma’s banquet dinners, the rich food that, for us, was the most enduring family tradition of our favored youth.

 Sitting at our oak table on my birthday, my brother Chip turns to his twelve-year-old daughter. “You know how to play rummy,” he says brightly. “Three-of-a-kind, runs—that’s how you go out.” My niece, mermaid streaks of aqua and green in her long black hair, nods and settles into her seat. I think of my evenings with Ma-Ma and realize, If not me, who will teach her? Then, a jolt: am I turning into Ma-Ma? Slowly, I grin. With my still mostly black hair and regular rowing workouts, sixty-two years wear differently on me than her.  

I spread a vinyl tablecloth, fuzzy side up, over the kitchen table. Ignoring the stains and pills of wear, I open my mah-jongg set, the pretty one that Ma-Ma gave me to replace the “ugly” ivory one I still keep in the closet. The pink and clear laminate tiles always strike me as juvenile, but when I remember that this gift was bestowed when I was only ten, I appreciate them, and her, more. I place at my chair the marker that shows the wind of the round and the two ancient dice I lifted from the old ivory set. I will be first dealer today.

I hand Alex my dog-eared copy of Mah-Jongg: Basic Rules and Strategies, and he and his girlfriend, heads together, eagerly scan the pages. They’re veteran game players, so they’ll catch on quickly.

Chip picks up a tile and snorts. “This looks familiar, but I can’t remember what it is. Guess I should’ve paid more attention in Chinese school.”

Alex looks up from the book. “This is just like a deck of cards with three suits and some extra stuff,” he says. “What’s this about the winds?”

I hold up the game marker and tap on the exposed character. “Okay, look. Doong, the east wind, is the wind of the round. That’s me. And you—” I point to my niece on my right, then continue around the table counterclockwise, “—are naam, sai, and bak. That’s south, west, and north. Flowers two, three, and four.” As they find those tiles to examine them more closely, I wag my finger and say, “And since we need to play to Ma-Ma’s standards, we’ll talk about mah-jongg etiquette, too. First, make sure all the Chinese characters are right side up.” I laugh as I reach for a tile and flip it around, but they know I’m dead serious.

“Three tiles in one hand, three in the other,” I say, showing them Ma-Ma’s technique for building tile walls. I roll the dice, scoop them away as Ma-Ma did, then point at my niece’s wall. “It’s a two, so you count two spaces from the right and break the wall there.” She does. Smooth as a wave, we sweep around the table picking up tiles. For the first two hands, we expose the tiles so everyone can learn the game. Calling pung and chee becomes natural by the second hand, so by the third hand, we graduate to concealed hands, the real thing. As I watch the discards, I notice that everyone’s tossing the suit of Chinese numbers; since they haven’t yet learned the characters for numbers 1 through 9, they’re dispensing with them. That’s OK. I smirk to myself. All to my benefit.

But my smugness soon vanishes when Alex calls mah-jongg. “I’ve got NEWS!” he announces, grinning at his own pun. He lays down his tiles, and I lean forward to check his hand. Based on my cousin’s Kaunoa Maui rules, which we’re playing by, he’s got the right combination: the North, East, West, and South winds, after which this hand was named, along with the numbers 1 to 9 in the suit we call “bamboo,” with one set as a pair. It’s an automatic thousand-point hand, one of the best in mah-jongg. I’m stunned by his boldness. Like “shooting the moon” in hearts, going for this particular hand in mah-jongg is risky but pays handsomely if you win.

“Wow, nice job!” I say, and if we were playing any other game, I’d jump up to give him a high five. But Ma-Ma’s voice within me insists that mah-jongg demands restraint. I can almost see her crossed arms and her disapproving glare, feel myself shrink because I’m not being polite enough. Like grabbing morsels from a common plate with your already-licked chopsticks or taking the best pieces of duck for yourself, some behaviors—such as uncontrolled American exuberance—are simply crass, inexcusable. Instead, I point to his tiles and effuse, “That’s a huge hand. Everyone owes you a thousand points, and dealer pays double! But wait, you dealt that hand, so everyone gives you two thousand points!” He grins, knowing he’s just pulled a major coup.

In the curve of Alex’s cheekbones, I catch a glimpse of my grandfather Yeh-Yeh, the man who bet on the lottery business and won big. Why did he risk so much? If he’d been caught, he could have been jailed or, even worse, deported. Was it because virtually the only other options available at the time for Chinese people—restauranteur, laundryman, laborer—weren’t lucrative enough? Was it because the lottery, legal in China during the late 1800s, had always been our family business, with specialized skills honed through generations? Or did he just feel lucky?   

How much of mah-jongg—or of life’s destiny—hinges on luck? My family was lucky enough to immigrate to America in the early 1870s, before the strictures of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, and roam the Wild West as cooks and laundrymen. We made a living running the Chinatown lottery before tax laws and police crackdowns edged us out of that business. But by then, we had the good fortune, and the means, to embed ourselves into American society through higher education and military service. We emerged from the shadows. For twenty years, I worked at the Environmental Protection Agency, and I still wonder what my relatives made of this irony—that I was an employee of the federal government, the dreaded establishment that had once threatened our family’s existence.

Is any choice ever a sure bet?

Alex flips his tiles face down and pushes them to the middle, where they’re stripped of their winning luster. The rest of us glance at each other’s tiles, crying in mock dismay.

“You had my sixes!”

“All I needed was a three of circles!”

“More tea?” I ask, reaching for my chrome pitcher. Secure in my grasp, its solid weight feels rich. Steam rises from my china cup. Spirited conversation—in a language I understand—fills the room. We break down our tile walls, wash winners and losers together. Today, we only believe in the luck we can hold in our hands.

About the Author

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Amber Wong

Amber Wong is an environmental engineer in Seattle, who writes about identity, the depth of family secrets, and the breadth of environmental threats.  Recent work has been published in Catamaran Literary Reader, Tahoma Literary Review, Entropy, Full Grown People, Lunch Ticket, and other literary journals.

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